A Woman of Much Importance
Updated: May 26
My stepmother recently turned 100.
Reflecting on her life I couldn’t help but think how different the Australia she was born into on January 17, 1914 is to the Australia we have variously celebrated in January, 2014. Let alone how much she has seen. There would not be many people on the planet who have seen what she has seen and fewer still who have lived the life she has lived.
Barbara’s birth coincided with the outbreak of WW1. The “war to end all wars” which far from ending war spawned another equally devastating one and proved that our capacity for inhumane behaviour is boundless.
I have to confess to a special relationship with Barbara. She married my father when I was a boy and became a soul mate, mentor and confidante. It might even be fair to say she understood me when few others did. Or maybe we understood each other. Or, maybe we were, as she used to say,
We certainly shared cigarettes in the saddle shed and anecdotes about Ancient Greek History in the kitchen on our farm near Rylstone on the Central Tablelands of NSW. I remember parading around bare chested in white footy shorts while she cooked dinner on the Aga Stove whilst simultaneously juggling three cigarettes at a time. One was in the ashtray, another crooked in her right hand and a third, drooping from her lip, spilled ash into the stew. The extraordinary thing about this is that she managed it with such panache.
For a confused boy of 16 she was manna from heaven. She gave me licence to play and to dream. When I boasted that I was Apollo she retorted that in that case she must be Athena.
No-one had ever gone near to talking to me like that.
Barbara had TB as a child. She brushed it aside and finished school as the Great Depression was peaking. She met my father at Sydney University and he took her to the movies. It was his first date. I’m not sure if it was hers but she and her mates at uni referred to him as the “stained glass window”. It is an epithet that continues to amuse her.
Upon graduating they went their different ways and she married Jim Molesworth in 1939 just as World War Two was about to shatter a generation’s dreams.
With typical disregard for her personal well being she followed her husband to Cairo and enlisted in the RAF as a cipher, decoding German intelligence. The fact that mathematics was hardly her strong suit didn’t deter her. Quite what messages she ended up passing on to her superiors is anyone’s guess. She wanted to do it so she did. The idea of a young Australian woman decamping to Cairo in 1939 as the world was about to tear itself apart is, quite simply, extraordinary.
As the war hotted up she was called home. Like all the Australian soldiers serving overseas, Jim travelled half across the world for a few weeks leave before being sent back for more. Barbara fell pregnant and subsequently had three children.
The impact of World War Two on that generation can never be underestimated. The men came home carrying, for some like Jim and my father, the scars of six years of unspeakable horror. There were no counsellors or support groups. The men and women who gave their lives, both literally and metaphorically, to the cause of freedom had to manage as best they could.
Our families paths crossed when my eldest brother contracted polio and my mother travelled to Sydney from Coonabarabran to sit by his bedside. My father joined her when he could and Jim and Barbara gave them much needed support. This was a time when polio was highly contagious.
When Jim died Barbara was left with three young boys to raise so she rolled up her sleeves, got herself a Dip Ed to go with the BA she’d received back in the 1930’s, and took up teaching. Ancient History was her passion and her girls at Cheltenham Girls High, on Sydney’s lower north shore, were soon topping the state.
She was also a single mum raising three extremely energetic boys who were involved in everything and anything.
Somehow she still managed time for the many suitors who turned up on her doorstep. One of these was my father who was farming out of Rylstone and called on her when in Sydney.
He convinced her to “take up” with him and she did.
I remember standing outside the laundry when she asked me how I’d feel about her marrying him. I was about 17 or 18. It was the best news I’d had since Christmas. Not only would she become my step mum but I would gain three new brothers to boot.
Speaking of Christmas, our Christmases were legendary. Six young men with their assorted wives, partners and mates descended on “Kona” and partied like there was no tomorrow.
An abiding memory is of Barbara, climbing on to the dining room table, sucking on a joint and declaring that,
“This has no effect on me.”
She had departed the comfortable halls of Cheltenham and taken up a position as Head of English at Kandos High.
Kandos was a cement town and rounded vowels were on short supply in the playground.
Of course this was a mere bagatelle to Barbara.
When a boy told her to,
She lowered her glasses and her voice and said,
“My dear boy, I can say fuck as well as the best of them but it does display a very limited vocabulary”.
By that time I was a first year out teacher at Tenterfield High School. Barbara and I would get together in the kitchen and compare notes on surviving the rough and tumble of teaching in a small country high school while she dropped ash into whatever she happened to be brewing up on the Aga.
Needless to say, before long, she had the Kandos kids eating out of her hand and introduced them (and the town) to the delights of Oscar Wilde and Sheridan in school productions.
Almost as inevitably my father and her parted ways but my brothers and I remained devoted to this most extraordinary human being.
When she retired she travelled the world famously being tossed off the dance floor in Hawaii at her step grand son’s wedding. She was 87 and a “mere slip of a girl”.
As her son Rodney has said,
“Barbara has lived enough life for a dozen people”.
She is a wonder and a treasure and I count myself privileged to have been lucky enough to have been in her orbit.
At her 100th I sat with her and said hello.
“Who are you?”
“Ned Manning? Have I had an affair with you?”
She has and it will never end.